That's how it felt anyway, and that's probably how it went down among the other teams when my back was turned. But when I'd traipse back to my table in fuchsia-faced shame with a zero or a foul blinking on the board, they never laid me low. I always got supportive advice. "You'll get there, man," they'd say. "You should have seen me when I started." Or more helpfully: "Just shake hands with the pins, man. That's all you got to do. Just shake hands with the pins." They were far more generous with me than they had any reason to be, and it was only after a couple of months when they got to know me a little better that they felt free enough to kid me now and then about how much I sucked. But even then it was always light and affectionate, a compliment really, a sign that they were letting me in.
"Hey, we all got strikes this round," Bob would say, "except one. Who was that, I wonder?" Then he'd smile at me while leaning back in his chair, dragging deeply on his cigarette. I'd make a big show of giving him the finger, and we'd all laugh. Bob's flinty veneer was cracking.
As I tried to be one of the guys, I could feel myself saying and doing the very things that young men do as teens when they're trying to sort out their place in the ranks. Like them, I was trying to fit in, be inconspicuous, keep from being found out. And so I imitated the modeled behaviors that said "Accept me. I'm okay. I'm one of the guys."
Half the time I was ashamed of myself for trying too hard, saying fuck or fuckin' one too many times in a sentence for effect, or swaggering just a little too wide and loose on my way to and from my turns, and probably looking as a result like I had a load in my pants.
But then I could see all of these learned behaviors in Bob and Jim and Allen, too, as well as the remnant insecurity they were meant to disguise. And that, I think, was where their generosity came from. They'd outgrown that adolescent need to challenge every comer as a way of deflecting their own misgivings. As always, Jim was the most forthcoming about his stupid flights of machismo and the Dumpsters they'd usually landed him in.
"I remember when I was in the army," he'd say, "and I was drunk off my ass as usual. And there was this huge guy playin' pool in the bar I was in. And I don't know why, but I just flicked a beer coaster at him, and it hit him right in the back of the head. And he turned around really slowly and he looked down at me and he said in this really tired way 'Do we really need to do this tonight?' And I said, 'Nah, you're right. We don't. Sorry.' So he turned around, and fuck me if I didn't just throw another one and hit him again, right in the back of the head. I don't know why I did it. No fuckin' idea. And I knew when I did it that he was gonna kick my ass, so I turned around and tried to run, and I slipped in a puddle of beer and fell on my face, and he just picked me right up and bashed the shit out of me. And the funniest thing about it was that the whole time he was punching me, he kept apologizing to me for having to do it."